Column: Stories of crime all around East Otter Tail County
I went to school at Carleton College, located in Northfield, Minn., about 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities. Northfield's a nice town of about 17,000 people, and is known for being the home of not only Carleton but also St. Olaf College.
For history buffs, Northfield is also known for being the place of defeat for Jesse James and his gang, which included other famous outlaws such as Cole and Bob Younger, Frank James and more.
Every fall, Northfield hosts 'The Defeat of Jesse James Days,' which includes a reenactment of the gang's botched robbery on Northfield's First National Bank in 1876.
I've watched the reenactment three or four times, I think, because I'm someone who enjoys history and am pretty fascinated by robberies and other criminal activity, especially when they take place in smaller towns like Northfield.
The reaction of small towns to criminals or robberies is different than what you'd find in a place like Minneapolis, or Fargo even. Townspeople tend to take action in a way that you wouldn't see in a big city, and that's exactly what happened in the Northfield robbery: When the townspeople realized the bank was being robbed, they got their guns and opened fire on the outlaws. Townspeople fighting for their own.
So, this theme in mind, I recently jumped into the archives of the New York Mills Herald and Perham Enterprise-Bulletin to see what kind of robberies or out-of-the-ordinary stories of criminal activity I could find from this area's past.
My search brought me to the Oct. 12, 1922 issue of the Enterprise Bulletin, where I found a short article with the headline, "Capture bandit." The article read:
"Wilfred Olson, Tiby Ranstad, Sidney Ckalman and Melvin Harstad, Battle Lake high school boys, captured one bandit and the car Monday night, after the Battle Lake store robbery reported in another column.
"The boys armed themselves and pursued the car to where the bandits turned off the lights and turned into a woods. They followed and caught one bandit. The other two escaped but are being pursued by volunteer posses."
This is exactly the kind of story I was hoping to find (and I'm sure it's not the only one out there, either). Robberies in small towns seem to elicit this kind of response - local high school students taking it upon themselves to track down the thieves with the help of volunteer posses. We don't really see volunteer posses anymore, do we? Just as, I suppose, we don't see high school students searching for criminals that often either.
Where's the work ethic, kids? You're not going to get anywhere doing homework. Get out there and find some bad guys!
Looking over the rest of the pages of that issue, I came across another interesting headline on the front page: "Break jail: Two Tough Birds Pry Loose Bars in Fergus and Make Getaway."
The first line of the article quickly caught my attention: "Cole Younger and Bob Emerson, two young men who were arrested last week...broke out of the Otter Tail County jail last week and escaped."
My excitement at finding a local connection to Jesse James was quickly tempered, though, when a Google search discovered that Cole Young of Jesse James fame died on March 21, 1916, and therefore, I deduced, he could not have been in Fergus Falls in 1922.
The Fergus Falls jailbreak, in addition to the Battle Lake robbery and ensuing pursuit, are just two interesting stories of criminal activity in this area, and I'm sure there are many more. I plan to keep searching through the archives to see what I can find, but if anyone out there has a particularly memorable story of small town criminal activity or daring robberies, please email it to me at email@example.com.
Or, even better, if you know what happened to Wilfred Olson, Tiby Ranstad, Sidney Ckalman and Melvin Harstad, contact me. I would be interested to know what became of those intrepid boys from Battle Lake and if they caught any more bandits after October 1922.